Power Mapping Goes Mainstream
Twenty years ago, earth exploration and computers
were often thought of as mutually exclusive. Today,
they are inseparable, and software is a critical enabler
of timely and informed geoscience decision-making.
Industry's need to efficiently access, integrate, and visualize
larger volumes and diversity of available data have given rise
to more powerful productivity tools for geoscientific data
access, analytics, mapping, and 3D visualization. Desktop
applications are routinely used to collect and view sample
data for quick site assessment in the field, while robust mapping
systems in the office provide sophisticated visualizations
and construction of complex 3D earth models to guide subsurface
In this article, we look at some of the factors driving
demand for more power, precision, and productivity and
provide industry examples that illustrate the effectiveness of
enabling technology in solving current data and workflow
efficiency challenges in the geosciences.
Industry data needs
Earth science projects are growing in complexity and scope.
As the generation and availability of digital, geoscientific
data grows, geoscientists are increasingly pressed to deliver
and account for results. They must meet the challenge of
accessing, integrating, and strategically using this rising volume
of data within compressed project timeframes in order
to support business decision-making within all industries and
across all disciplines. Easy access, frequent updating, and
continual manipulation of data, in real time, are in demand
throughout the lifecycle of a geoscience project - from data
analysis in the field, to collaborative interpretation in team
meetings, to the presentation of results in the corporate
Within mineral exploration, the need for more integrated,
advanced and subtle methods is partially driven by the
fact that companies are trying to find ore bodies in complex
environments.. In many cases, geoscientists are working with
larger volumes of geological, geophysical, and geochemical
data. Exploration project data can include 500 or more drill
holes, some of which are 1000 m deep or more - in combination
with satellite imagery, GIS data, and surface and
subsurface geology data.
Geoscientists in a variety of fields now require software
tools capable of efficiently processing, analyzing for statistical
variation, relationships and other factors, interpreting
and clearly presenting large volumes of data from multiple
data sources and in diverse data formats. They must do so
within a single or transparently-linked interactive environment
that allows for frequent data update, modification, and
Productivity crunch and transparency
With organizations driving the need for better, faster, and
more cost effective earth exploration, geoscientists are challenged
to meet higher employer and customer expectations.
Organizations now require more accountability than ever
before from their geoscientist employees and consultants.
More stringent government regulations compel geoscientists
to make their processes transparent en route to their conclusions.
And satisfying regulatory requirements has heightened
the need to address data integrity issues in the face of mounting
compliance issues such as Sarbanes Oxley, Bill 198 and
NI 43-101. In the private sector, there is also the onus of
corporate governance which extends well beyond financial
integrity to include social responsibility and timely returns
In this new culture of immediacy and shared visual data,
geoscientists are expected to produce site assessments, projections,
and results in real time, as well as checks and balances
on a project's viability. Decision making via laptop has
replaced the traditional report.
Larger and more sophisticated investigations that rely
on greater collaboration across industry partners and across
disciplines has created an increased need for efficient data
integration, software interoperability, and data exchange.
Integrated geoscience projects typically involve geophysicists,
geochemists, and geologists working together as part of multidisciplinary
teams - sharing data, maps, and interpretations
with colleagues in their organizations and with stakeholders in
their community. Exploration programmes often involve two
or more companies working together within joint ventures,
option agreements, and other partnership arrangements.
While connectivity requirements vary across industry and
discipline, demand for improved connectivity and easy data
sharing is a key theme in the geosciences. Each discipline
has its own set of data types and formats, such as point
data, grids and images, map objects, GIS vector layer, well
logs, and others. Add to this the numerous software providers
each with their own proprietary data formats, and one begins to have a sense of the magnitude of the data integration
Technology-driven productivity solutions
The software industry has responded to these data challenges
and productivity needs with improvements in software interoperability, interface, workflow automation, speed, and performance.
Industry software vendors have progressively
added new format support to meet increased
demands for collaborative data exchange and seamless software
interoperability. Many software developers provide a
SoftwareDeveloper Kit (SDK) to allow other developers to
read and write their formats. In addition, standard exchange
formats, such as GXF for grids, can be used by all. While
data exchange challenges continue to exist, geoscientists are
better able to share data, maps, and interpretation results
across departments and industries, and with colleagues
across the globe. New generation geoscience technology
solutions are delivering more powerful productivity tools
for dealing with large, geoscientific datasets, and maximizing
their value in business decision-making. To improve
productivity and workflow efficiency, geoscientists and
organizations are deploying powerful mapping systems
that incorporate awide range of analytic tools, production
mapping capabilities, and advanced visualization within a
single, 3D environment. This democratization of data and
its increased interchangeability among all stakeholders has
helped minimize the frustration and downtime associated
with format and software incompatibility.
Powerful, advanced mapping systems have become a
staple of geoscientists needing to satisfy the real time expectations
of results-driven employers and customers. Modern
geoscience mapping systems combine advanced scientific
methodology and powerful processing, mapping, and analysis
tools to create 'power-mapping' capabilities that are
removing the efficiency limitations of the past. Earth data
exploration is a rigorous and iterative process. This latest
generation of power-mapping software automates many
aspects of this process, allowing geoscientists to continually
and rapidly edit their maps and interpretations as fresh
project data becomes available.
The rich range of functionality within one power-mapping
environment allows geoscientists to integrate, analyze,
and visualize large, multi-disciplinary datasets, and also
manage their data project from beginning to end within
a single environment. Using one application rather than
four streamlines workflow and improves efficiency. It also
contributes to greater data integrity, project continuity, and
higher quality interpretations.
Power-mapping software typically includes useful production
tools such as scripting, GX development, batch printing,
and core functions that aid the user throughout the process.
Easy-to-use interactive map templates provide a framework
to quickly and easily determine where to place map elements,
and set the paper size and data views to define the look
and feel of the map. They can also add logos and other map
elements into fixed positions every time, thereby eliminating
guess work and providing greater precision and control.
More dynamic and interactive visualization capabilities
enable geoscientists to apply multiple layers of data within
one integrated environment, add vector and geochemical data
onto a geophysical background layer, or use geological data
as a cross-reference in the interpretation of geophysical data.
Users can incorporate data elements such as proportional
symbols, contours, and shaded colour grids from several
database sources, including magnetic, gravity, electromagnetic,
and geochemical information. They can combine
geochemistry, geology, and geophysics data in dynamicallylinked
maps, in 2D or 3D, and also include qualitative and
quantitative assessment in context with other data sets for
confirmation of the validity and quality of data. They can
include insets, 2D or 3D views, and surfaces along with JPG
images of digital photos pointing to areas on the map. They
can overlay scanned topographic or satellite images. They
can be labelled in just about any language, then custom
coloured and patterned for maximum effect. Sophisticated
interpretations and advanced forward modelling and inversions
that aid in deeper understanding of the sub-surface are
also becoming commonplace.
All of these elements can be hidden, masked, or made
transparent to allow users to visualize and interpret all the
data they have at their disposal, or create many data-rich
views and maps on one screen.
Efficiency is key to the result-oriented geoscientist.
Technology is addressing this challenge through improvements
in software interface and automated workflow. To
accommodate the difference in workflows across disciplines,
many software packages have arisen with built-in standard
best practice menus for handling and displaying data of
specific disciplines. These menus can be customized to meet
a wide range of geological, geochemical, and geophysical
requirements for processing, displaying and analyzing data.
To provide additional flexibility for help with workflow
customization, software programs have also incorporated
scripting or macro writing abilities. Where standard software
configurations or generic scripting or macro writing abilities
do not meet a specific organization's workflow needs,
custom development can often provide a unique solution.
The up-front costs for custom solutions can be high, but
their time savings and cost efficiencies can pay off. We know
of a custom solution for one organization that reduced a
week-long manual process to less than 30 minutes. Every
efficiency improvement is not that significant, of course. But
even small, incremental productivity improvements bring
cumulative benefit and operational efficiency.
The advancement of unique multi-disciplinary workflows,
for geochemistry, geology, and geophysics embedded within
software has also contributed to greater efficiency. Within
exploration, the way we use geochemistry has evolved from
using the data to create single element anomaly maps, to
analyzing multi-element data, recognizing geochemical associations
and creating better defined exploration targets.
Geochemical investigations, including surface and subsurface
investigations, are an integral part in assessing mineral
exploration projects, not only in gold, base metal, and diamond
exploration, but also in oil and gas, coal and iron ore projects.
As an example, the use of Kimberlite Indicator Minerals for
discrimination is standard practice in diamond exploration,
and the development of a unique geochemistry workflow has
been proven to benefit diamond target selection.
Rio Tinto Exploration, a world leader in finding, mining
and processing the earth's mineral resources, developed
SEMplot (Scanning Electron Microscopy) geochemistry workflow
to analyze Kimberlite indicator minerals. Andy Lloyd,
Rio Tinto Exploration project geologist in South Africa,
attributes the power of SEMPlot to its ability to take very large
volumes of microprobe data; use known, scientific analysis
tools such as histogram plots and scatter tools to analyze it;
and then quickly produce spatial maps, graphical maps and
plots. 'SEMPlot allows the data to be displayed in a graphical
format, so it can be effectively interpreted,' says Lloyd. 'Its
ability to manage data in excess of a million data points, with
ease and simplicity, makes it a very powerful tool.'
SEMPlot has been recently added to Geosoft's software
environment and provides a simple-to-use workflow for the
analysis of indicator mineral grain geochemistry. The workflow
includes the import of the data, the mineral identification
of the grain based on its chemistry, display of the selected
grains on the discriminating graphs, and interactive re-classification.
SEMPlot users see strong benefit in the workflow's dynamic
linking which ensure maintenance of the spatial context between
the grain graphs, database, and maps, and make anomaly location
and target selection quicker and more efficient.
Speed and processing power
Speed is an obvious advantage when geoscientists need to
quickly and clearly view the quality of data at every phase
of investigation, from initial data processing and quality
control through to visualization, integration, and the final
interpretations. Improved memory handling using dual
processors, and optimizing processes and algorithms to correct
bottlenecks have gone a long way toward speeding up
visualization. Enhancements to increase the speed of memory-
intensive processes, such as the minimum curvature
gridding process, has cut the time of the memory-intensive
gridding process in half, even with today's larger datasets.
The emergence of 3D visualization as the standard for
integration and analysis of inter-disciplinary data has presented
a significant performance challenge in the sheer volume
of data that must be manipulated. Each 3D voxel has
1000 cells on each side, giving it a total content of one billion
cells. Users can easily rotate one billion points of data
as they spin their 3D data. Three dimensional visualization
technology has made dramatic advances in responding to
the growing requirements to represent and visualize surface
and subsurface 3D data. Working within a fully integrated,
3D software environment, users can quickly and easily
combine surfaces, drill holes, and geophysical models in
3D and view them from numerous perspectives. Users can
highlight only the data or horizon of interest on the screen.
They can also use a vertically-exaggerated perspective to
more readily understand what is happening in shallow
drill holes over a large area. Among standard capabilities
these days, users can interactively zoom, pan, and rotate
objects in 3D.
During the initial reconnaissance of an area, users might
choose to drape satellite images or geology layers over a
digital elevation model. With a few clicks, they could add
surface data and potential drill collars, and/or display drill
traces intersecting targets from inverted models, or display
selected mineral horizons or sedimentary units.
Faced with growing data volumes and larger projects to
manage, geoscientists are demanding - and using - more
advanced capabilities for integration and visualization of
large, multidisciplinary geological, geophysical, and geochemical
datasets. They are deploying powerful mapping
systems that incorporate a wide range of analytic tools,
production mapping capabilities, and advanced visualization
within 3D and subsurface environments. The end result is a
more complete picture, and stronger corroborating evidence
to support interpretations and guide decision-making.
Louis Racic is Industry Product Manager with Geosoft.